At this point he gets to act as provocateur
GEORGE CLOONEY loves to quote the lines in his new film, “Good Night, and Good Luck,” that were written by Edward R. Murrow during the journalist’s famed 1954 confrontation with communist hunter Sen. Joseph McCarthy: “We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty”; “Accusations are not proof”; “If we dig deep in our history and doctrine, we know we are not descended from fearful men.”
The black-and-white documentary-style film, which Clooney co-wrote, produced, directed and in which he plays “See It Now” producer Fred Friendly, won best screenplay for Clooney and Grant Heslov and best actor honors for David Strathairn this month at the Venice Film Festival and will open the New York Film Festival on Friday. It will be released in the U.S. on Oct. 7.
Normally, the small, $8-million “Good Night, and Good Luck” would be the sort of politically relevant film that comes and goes and makes a paltry $500,000, Clooney said recently. But by coincidence, the film has hit at a moment when its main point -- journalists need courage to combat both government officials who try to intimidate them and corporate bosses who want them to entertain viewers -- is sparking in real life.
Just as CBS Chairman Les Moonves’ comments about making the evening news more entertaining have reverberated through the media, broadcast reporters have been praised for holding government officials’ feet to the fire after Hurricane Katrina.
With the national focus no longer solely on the questions about integrity and accuracy that have dogged the scandal-plagued media in recent years, the movie now seems to have the potential to inspire a deeper conversation about the purpose and power of the press.
“There are very few guys who are out-and-out heroes to writers,” Clooney said. “In broadcast, the two most famous were Murrow taking on McCarthy and Cronkite taking on Vietnam. They had a direct and immediate impact on our country. I believe it’s the responsibility of journalism to ask questions, and especially broadcast journalists since 90% of our news now comes from them.”
In the film, the external enemy is communism, exploited by McCarthy, who is portrayed through archival film clips. In a climate of fear, journalists and producers are caught between McCarthy sympathizers in government, who can accuse them of being traitors, and their sponsors and higher-ups in their companies, who want them to back off controversy. “Murrow talks about ‘a built-in allergy to stories that offend us,’ ” Clooney said. “The problem hasn’t changed, really.”
Clooney, 44, grew up hearing his father, Nick Clooney, a former Kentucky anchorman, hold up Murrow as a hero. At a time when television was in its infancy, Murrow took on McCarthy on the CBS news program “See It Now,” first through stories about individual victims of the McCarthy hearings and later through editorials that exposed the senator’s scaremongering tactics. He offered McCarthy equal time, and then found himself forced to refute charges that he was a communist sympathizer.
The broadcasts ultimately put McCarthy in a spotlight that is acknowledged to be the beginning of his downfall. Murrow became, as Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio Television News Directors Assn., put it, “a tremendous symbol for all television-radio journalists of what the very best practices and standards can be.”
Many writers and students still ask for transcripts of Murrow’s famous 1958 speech before the news directors’ group, in which he observed television’s power to teach, illuminate and inspire but added that “it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise, it is merely wires and lights in a box.”
The conflict between reporters’ drive to cover important events without compromise and management’s need to please shareholders and board members was spotlighted last year when CNN President Jonathan Klein asked anchors to show more personality. It came alive again this month when Moonves was described in a New York Times Magazine article as hoping to raise the entertainment quotient of his nightly news shows. He later qualified his remarks, saying he aims only for “change.”
Movie studios too are under pressure to produce blockbuster crowd-pleasers, and in this climate, only someone with Clooney’s clout and passion would be likely to make a politically engaged movie that aspires to also be entertaining, as “Good Night, and Good Luck” does.
“No one else could have gotten this film made,” said Andy Friendly, Fred Friendly’s son and a longtime television producer, executive and consultant. “He could easily sit at home and collect his $25-million paychecks for making big commercial movies, enjoy his home in Italy and hang out.”
Lessons from home
WHEN Clooney talks about his father, it’s clear he feels the long shadow of the ex-anchorman. His father’s ideals set the standard for his own. “There were plenty of times he’d say, ‘Don’t come back and look me in the eye unless you did this ...’ ” Clooney said. Even now, “He’s the dominant one in the room. He’s funny and smart. If he were here, he would be telling stories and we’d be sitting there listening.”
“Good Night, and Good Luck” is “ultimately a love letter to my old man,” Clooney said. “It’s me saying, ‘Thanks for setting the bar that high, for believing so strongly in the responsibility of information,’ and taking it to the level where it cost him a lot of things over the years. There were jobs he left because he wasn’t willing to compromise.”
Clooney initially tried to follow in his father’s footsteps, studying journalism for a bit and working briefly on a cable access channel. “I realized quickly I wasn’t good enough to be able to play the game. I didn’t finish college. I wasn’t well-read. I spent a great many years trying to make up for my lack of curiosity in my early 20s,” he said. “I had very little interest in anything. I was sort of floating by.”
By his mid-20s, he had started to focus, partly as a result of watching his father grow frustrated and discouraged by the shift toward entertainment in television news. “They sent him to consultants for what color of suit to wear, how to part his hair. ‘Don’t write the news. Read the news.’ All the things that were killing him....
“I’d be watching some crappy news show and my dad would go, ‘They’re not talking about this or this. They didn’t ask these questions.’ It was a good education.”
Clooney also absorbed his father’s liberal politics -- on issues including civil rights, gun control and equality for women. Earlier this year, he helped raise campaign funds for his father, who ultimately lost a Kentucky congressional race to GOP business consultant Geoff Davis.
But over time, he said, they grew apart politically, as his father drew closer to his Catholic faith. “Some of that wide angle of liberalism narrowed and actually formed some friction between the two of us. It became harder for me to be completely supportive if my father would say, ‘They should have a different name for it besides “gay marriage.” ’ To me, that’s one you can’t cop out on.... It made it complicated for us at times, but not complicated enough to not be proud and to not campaign for him,” Clooney said.
He and his dad knew the Hollywood connection could be a liability in the campaign. “My father’s lived 68 years in Kentucky and has very little to do with Hollywood,” he said. “And suddenly he’s a Hollywood hippie.” An inveterate letter writer who still uses an electric typewriter because he likes to feel the imprint of the keys on paper, Clooney fired off a letter to the editor of the local paper complaining that Davis had unfairly linked his father with him. “I said my father had earned the right to be judged on his own merits, not mine.... If you have questions about where he stands, ask him. He’ll tell you. But don’t use me as a weapon against him.”
Parlaying his success
IN a way, Clooney has carried on that independent spirit in the film world, finding creative ways to produce the sort of socially and politically relevant films that have faded since the ‘60s and ‘70s. In 1999, Clooney formed a joint venture with partner Steven Soderbergh, called Section 8, to use profits from commercial films such as the “Ocean’s Eleven” franchise to finance less-commercial fare.
“I’m in the enviable position of being able to force studios to make films that they wouldn’t ordinarily make,” he said. Besides “Good Night, and Good Luck,” he cited “Syriana,” a political thriller set in the Persian Gulf, which Clooney persuaded Warner Bros. to make partly by taking no money upfront. Clooney plays a career CIA operative, based on real-life agent Robert Baer, who uncovers a disturbing truth about his life’s work. The film will have a Nov. 23 limited release and go into general release Dec. 9.
“I had to go to [Section 8 partner Warner Bros.] and say, ‘Here’s the deal. Say someone would pay me $20 million to be in the film,’ ” Clooney said. “ ‘If someone were to pay me that, which I’ve certainly been offered, that would basically mean I’m a $20-million investor in this film.’ It makes me gambling with them. I’m saying, ‘I’m taking no money upfront, I’m already investing in this film. Now do you want to come on board or do I raise the money somewhere else, which I probably can.’ ”
Tan, talkative and friendly, Clooney slouched in a leather chair in his dimly lighted cottage office on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank. He rested both feet on the oversized wood and leather desk he shares with Soderbergh. He wasn’t relaxed; it was the best position to relieve the ongoing pain from a spinal injury he suffered earlier this year on the set of “Syriana.”
“Good Night, and Good Luck” started shooting after Clooney, who had gained 35 pounds for the role, was injured during some fight scenes. Mysterious and excruciating headaches turned out to have been the result of a spinal leak, which requires in-hospital treatment every two weeks.
“We’d already written the script, hired all the people. I knew there was no way I could not do it. It’s one of those things that forces you to go,” he said. “It’s actually good for you. People think you should stay in bed and get well. Had I not had all this work to do, I would have sat around and felt sorry for myself.”
Clooney financed the film, his second directorial outing after “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” with outside partners Todd Wagner and Mark Cuban’s 2929 Entertainment and Jeff Skoll’s Participant Productions. “I got a dollar for writing the script,” he said. “I had to endorse my check for directing and turn in my acting salary. Grant [co-writer, actor and producer Heslov] and I each made a buck for doing it.”
At first, Clooney hoped to play Murrow. But after watching the old clips, he realized that Murrow had the look of someone who was carrying the weight of the world and hardly anyone would buy the easygoing Clooney in the role. He hired Strathairn instead. Frank Langella plays CBS boss William Paley; Robert Downey Jr. plays reporter Joe Wershba, with Patricia Clarkson as his wife, Shirley.
Clooney did not want to hire an actor to play McCarthy. “I wanted to deal with the movie the same way Murrow dealt with McCarthy, in his own words,” he said. To blend the old black-and-white footage with new shots, the film was shot in color, which is less expensive, and transferred to black-and-white stock.
Clooney said he researched opposing points of view for “Good Night, and Good Luck,” and ended up incorporating the opinions of people who thought Murrow was inappropriately using his news show to editorialize. In one scene, Paley asks Murrow why he didn’t correct McCarthy when he said Alger Hiss was a traitor, the implication being that Murrow didn’t want to risk appearing to be defending Hiss. “Obviously Paley didn’t say that,” Clooney said. “I got that from one of the opposition. I wanted the arguments to be brought up.”
One scene, taken from real life, has the editorial team meeting in a room, each one in turn revealing any potential past involvement with communism that could hurt the show later. “They knew they were risking everything to do this program. They were young guys in their late 20s and 30s, with new homes, families, mortgages. They knew the future of the country was at stake, and they knew they were targets. The government tried to intimidate them. Even Eisenhower, a courageous general, pretty much stayed silent on this topic of McCarthy.”
But in lionizing Murrow, it’s easy, of course, to forget what ultimately happened to him: Ironically, despite the overwhelmingly positive response from critics and the public, the McCarthy programs eventually led to the demise of “See it Now” and, for a time, squelched the airing of controversial documentaries on CBS, Friendly said. In the end, the constant static from advertisers and affiliates gave Paley, in his words in the film, “a constant stomachache.” “See It Now” was moved from its weekly slot to Sunday afternoons, and two years later, it was off the air.
“Murrow left 10 years later, frustrated and depressed. My father left after that, after being president of CBS News,” Friendly said. “He resigned in protest after CBS refused to run Senate hearings on Vietnam in favor of the third rerun of ‘I Love Lucy,’ ” he said.
His own ‘annus horribilis’
ALL things considered, Clooney said in all seriousness, “It’s been the worst year of my life.”
Besides his health problems, his grandmother and brother-in-law died, and his dog was killed by a rattlesnake, though Clooney tried to beat the snake off with a baseball bat. “The last thing the dog remembers is me hitting the dog,” he said. “It was really traumatic.”
Without any commercial films such as “Ocean’s Twelve,” he also lost more money than he had in a long time. That hasn’t stopped him from forging ahead with a $3-billion Las Vegas casino development project with joint venture partners. In any case, if he needs quick cash, he said he can make a commercial or two abroad. In Italy, ads like the ones he’s made for sunglasses, cars and Martini & Rossi, can bring upward of $500,000 each, he said.
Still, he and Soderbergh will close Section 8 within a year, he said. “That was something we decided a long time ago. Steven and I looked at it as a great, fun experiment that will go sour at some point, and rather than let it go sour, we’re going to let it have a good run.
“We feel like we’re trying to pick the right spot to pull the plug and walk away.”
And yet, the projects keep coming: “The Good German,” a film directed by Soderbergh, stars Clooney as an American journalist who, while seeking his mistress in postwar Berlin, becomes entangled in a murder mystery; and “Michael Clayton,” starring Clooney as a high-profile New York attorney in the last and worst days of his career. Both are scheduled for release next year.
Even after Section 8 shuts down, he plans to keep working with Soderbergh. “We’re really good friends. We just were afraid of becoming administrators. All of a sudden we were businessmen. Not only are we not tremendously good at it, we really don’t enjoy it. It’s not fun.”
But Clooney said he wants to leverage his fame and power as a box office commodity while he still can. “I want to say I did it when it wasn’t very easy. If it costs you a career, credibility and all those things, that means you did it on your own volition and you have to live with that. I’m OK with that. I’d rather be able to point back and say, ‘At this exact moment in history when it was kind of tricky to do this, these are the stories I told.’ ”
And while it may be unrealistic to think a film might inspire young journalists to become Murrows or Friendlys, Clooney said, “The only thing you can do is raise that discussion again. What’s been fun is to sit back and say, ‘Tell me, what’s so wrong about asking tough questions of all the government?’ ”